The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
  • Continue reading

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 6

The term “direct democracy” could have two meanings that are a-priori distinct but are often conflated in discourse. The first meaning is: a system in which all group members are directly involved on an equal basis in all important decision making. The second meaning is: a system which employs certain devices, notably votes on legislation, involving a formal equality among citizens, and which avoids formal delegation of authority. Since the two meanings are not the same and since the first meaning is by definition a form of democracy, I’ll use “direct democracy” to mean the former. The second meaning I’ll call “non-delegatory mass politics”.

In chapter 3 of Open Democracy Landemore makes her argument against the standard reformist idea that direct democracy can and should be achieved through non-delegatory mass politics. As Landemore mentions, this idea is quite common among anti-electoralist movements. The idea certainly has an intuitive appeal since non-delegation seems like the obvious antithesis of elections. Devoting time and space to a tight argument against this idea seems therefore like a well-justified effort. Beyond the intellectual value of such an argument, it serves a practical purpose as well in

paving the way for democrats to reconquer sites of real power by disabusing them of the notion that gathering in public spaces in large numbers marching against authorities, or letting popular social media personalities end up as de facto leaders is enough, or even all that democratic.

Accepting that democracy is always in some sense representative […], and indeed needs to be, would save a lot of these social movements from the sort of conceptual and practical dead ends that the Zappatistas, Occupy, the Indignados and other proponents of assembly democracy in the Arab Spring, in Turkey and elsewhere count not find a way out of. It would allow for the civic energy mobilized by these movements to be channeled into constructive decision-making beyond demonstrating and occupying and generally go from noise to signal. (p. 76)

Furthermore, recognizing that representation is inevitable will help stave off the danger that “under the guise of immediacy and spontaneity […] self selected groups [would] speak[…] in the name of the whole” (p. 76).

Landemore’s position, like her position regarding elections, is commendably principled and uncompromising:

It is simply not the case that democracy as a political regime can ever be truly direct even at the small scale of a city or a canton as opposed to being always mediated and based on some kind of political delegation of political authority. (p. 63)

[T]he possibility of direct democracy breaks down as soon as the group expands beyond a few hundred people. (p. 65)

[T]he interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we favor? The real opposition is […] between more or less democratic forms of represntative rule. On one extreme, ordinary people actually get to rule […] (as in Ancient Athens); at the other extreme the representative system is open only to an elite few. […] Our contemporary electoral ‘democracies’ fall somewhere on this continuum and, arguably, rather close to the elitist, closed side. (p. 78)

Continue reading

Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!
Continue reading

The French Citizen Climate Convention: a provisional analysis

It has been about 5 months since the French Citizen Climate Convention has published its proposals, and with acrimony setting in about the de-facto shelving of much of its work, various conclusions are being drawn about the CCC process. As usual, the conclusions almost invariably confirm the existing notions of the analyst. My analysis is no different in this sense: it seems to me that to a large extent each party to the process has played its expected role and thus the outcomes are quite predictable. I will highlight however two points that have been established empirically that should not have been taken for granted regarding how things would turn out.

Here are points about the CCC process that in my opinion are worth noting:

1. The process was launched as a government response to the Gilets Jaunes, a mass movement whose agenda was not just anti-government but also anti-electoralist. A popular initiative process (Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC) and to a lesser extent sortition were a major part of the discourse of the Gilets Jaunes. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes movement was triggered by what the government presented as environmentalist policy – increasing the gas tax. Thus having a non-electoralist process for generating environmental policy proposals was a direct capitulation to GJ demands. This origin of the body as a direct, stop-gap response to mass protest is very different from the origins of other allotted bodies, such as the Irish constitutional conventions. Such bodies, even if they were in some way a response to public disaffection with the status quo, were constituted in a much more carefully controlled manner by established power.
Continue reading

Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 2/2

This is the second and final part of a translation of an article by Claude Sicard published in July 2020 in Le Figaro. The first part is here.

In order to put an end to the Gilets Jaunes revolt, Macron embarked in January 2019 upon what he called the “Great National Conversation”. This has consisted of organizing huge meetings in city halls with the participation of mayors and the local elected politicians, and urging the population to share their comments in person in during the meetings or through an online platform. Macron himself made many animated appearances in these meetings all over the country, which usually lasted more than four hours. Macron would take off his jacket and respond to all the questions addressed to him. Meetings took place in more than 10,000 municipalities, and 1.9 million comments were made. The “Great Conversation” was concluded with a press conference on April 25th, 2019. On that occasion Macron said: “I wished to meet you in order to draw the main lessons from the Great National Conversation and to propose to the nation directions for a new way that our citizens are looking for, a new way for our republic”. He has described the Great Conversation as “an unprecedented exercise for contemporary democracies”. This was therefore a mass popular consultation whose goal was to orient the actions of public institutions over the coming years.

That was followed by a second step. Following the coronavirus crisis, on May 25th, the “Health Conference at Ségur”. The crisis required great dedication from health professionals in order to make up for grave weaknesses of our public hospital system. It was therefore necessary to take their many demands into account without any further delay. Macron saw himself as forced to try to address as well as possible those demands, having been the first praise the exceptional dedication of the health personnel during the crisis, going as far as calling the first responders “national heros”. Macron initiated another great consultation, this time among 300 principal actor in the health sector. This was a second exercise, then, in participative democracy. The goal of this consultation was particularly ambitious. The prime minister defined it as follows in his opening speach: “To construct together the future of the hospital, to heal a system that was blocked and impoverished, and build a new health system organization in each territory”. The participants were given an incredibly short period for reforming our public health system: a month and a half at the most.
Continue reading

Claude Sicard: Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous, Part 1

A translation of an article from Le Figaro.

Replacing representative democracy with participative democracy is dangerous
Claude Sicard, economist and international consultant
July 6, 2020

Seeing his popularity ratings decline, Emmanuel Macron appeals to the French people for a reform. For this economist, the head of state’s seemingly bright idea is a mistake because making decisions concerning the future of a country requires thorough study and the assistance of experts.

Macron at the Citizen Convention for the Climate at the Élysée, June 29, 2020.

The distance in our country between civil society and the institutions never stops increasing. In every democratic system it is the law that the majority prevails: the dominant fraction imposes its will on the minority, and the electoral moment is decisive for the duration of the mandate of the elected representatives. These principles are increasingly questioned these days. Minorities are increasingly unwilling not to be heard, and moreover they too often observe that the elected do not always have the virtues which they claimed to have during the campaign. Pierre Rosanvallon, a noted researcher of democracy, tells us that we are seeing in our modern democracies the rise of the “people as a judge”. The “monitoring citizen”, he says, is replacing the “voting citizen”. In this way a tendency has developed in our modern societies toward the creation of “counter-democracies”.

CEVIPOF surveys confirm this claim: 70% of the French think that in our country democracy “does not function very well”, and assert that they have no confidence in the ability of members of parliament to address issues that the country is facing. The American political scientist Yascha Mounk, a Harvard professor, writes in his book The People vs. Democracy published in 2018 that “in North America and in Western Europe, a growing number of citizens are turning their backs on democracy: they are feeling that they have less and less influence over political decisions”.
Continue reading

The Morning Star: An allotted assembly could not address the climate crisis

The British socialist newspaper The Morning Star has published an editorial in which it criticizes XR’s “non-ideological” stance and XR’s demands for an allotted climate assembly. The background for the editorial is a recent tweet by XR:

Just to be clear we are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like jury service) to find the best future for us all through a #CitizensAssembly A banner saying ‘socialism or extinction’ does not represent us 🙏🏽🙏 [@XRebellionUK, 4:56 PM · Sep 1, 2020]

This tweet has apparently been issued in response to a photo showing participants in an XR protest carrying the said “socialism or extinction” banner.

The Morning Star editorializes:

The proposal of a citizen’s assembly selected by sortition, frequently made by XR, is linked to its claim to be non-ideological.

But the problem with the assumption that such an assembly could address the climate crisis is the same as that of XR’s whole tweet: it wilfully ignores the central role of the capitalist system in driving climate chaos.

Appeals to parliaments and presidents to “do something” about climate change will fail if they treat such decision-makers as neutral actors rather than instruments of class power.

Malcolm Gladwell on sortition

Malcolm Gladwell is a well-known popular science author. Gladwell has a podcast called “Revisionist History”. A recent episode of the podcast is devoted to sortition, with much of it being about Adam Cronkright’s work in applying sortition to student bodies in schools in Bolivia. Gladwell himself visits a school in the US and finds that the students are receptive to the idea. He also mentions the idea of using a lottery to allocate research funds.

Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.
Continue reading

Kleroterion 2.0; Our Once and Future Escape Key

This is the third post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here and the second post is here.

There are mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States and around the world against racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was recorded being choked to death by a police officer while in custody. Among his last words, “Please, I can’t breathe” are now a slogan repeated and sung around the world, a metaphor for the stifling nature of racialized oppression. Here in Ontario — the Toronto-Niagara Golden Horseshoe region is the most racial and ethnically diverse in the world, a place where immigrants are popular and in Toronto  are actually the majority –there have still been large street demonstrations against deaths-while-in-custody of certain Black and Indigenous people who were suffering from mental illness. Why is it, Toronto activists ask, that money meant to alleviate problems in poor neighbourhoods is directed away from local social workers and towards force, armed police and other arbitrary measures? In the Canadian Parliament, Elizabeth May, leader of the opposition Green Party, summarized a large part of the problem,

She urged an inquiry to weed out white-power groups in Canada and make sure they are not infiltrating police forces. `Because if there is one thing scarier than a white supremacist with a gun, it’s a white supremacist with a gun in uniform.’ (1)

Mr. Floyd’s plea for air resonates so universally because none are guarding the guardians. Clearly, bullies in uniform tasked with enforcing social distancing laws are targeting and persecuting visible minorities, worsening the climate of fear that visible minorities already suffer under. The democratic institutions that depend upon justice, especially but not exclusively the police, to uphold the rule of law are blocking reform and accountability and stifling the very purpose for which they exist, to serve the social good, protect the vulnerable and assure the safety, order and security of everyone, not just the privileged. So, these are the questions of the hour: How can democracies end the perilous insularity of the police? How do we reinstate badly degraded trust in authority? Why is the guardian branch of governance so prone to corruption, bullying and infiltration by sociopaths? How do we end the vicious cycle of escalating violence, reaction and oppression?
Continue reading